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Myth of the powerless private

Date Released: Wed, 21 August 2013 14:43 +0200

By Annetjie van Wynegaard

Journalists in South Africa are sometimes criticised from a Leftwing, Marxist perspective, for being tools of capitalist owners, but another perspective was heard at Rhodes University this week (Tuesday, 20 August 2013). Political scientist and columnist Steven Friedman put forward the view that deeply ingrained but incorrect views about the power relationship between business and government have led to journalists misconstruing South African realities.

Friedman was talking about financial reporting at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. Friedman, who has specialised in the study of democracy, is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint initiative between Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

In his talk Friedman unpacked the kind of world views and assumptions that underpin how people do journalism. He began his talk by analysing the way in which media reported on the South African Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus’s speech at the 26th annual Labour Law Conference in July this year. SA Reserve Bank Governor, Gill Marcus’s speech

Friedman compared two quotes from print media to the original speech to show how journalists misinterpreted the Reserve Bank statement. Marcus’s call for leadership in her speech was interpreted as an attack on government, but was indeed a call for various actors in South Africa to take responsibility for the deep structural weaknesses in the South African economy. The key point here, said Friedman, is that a message is being fundamentally distorted by the news media.

“Why do the media portray the governor in this way?” asked Friedman. He provided two possible reasons for the distortion of the governor’s speech. His first possible reason is steeped in the Marxist school of thought and market economy that the real source of power in society is ownership. The people who own newspapers don’t like the government, said Friedman, hence they are pressured to adopt pro-business policies. The media portrays itself as unbiased, but repeats the goals and aims of its owners. Friedman further said that private abuse of power is acceptable, whereas public abuse of power is regarded as suspect. He challenged this common-sense ideology by referring to the private health industry’s substantial abuse of power, of which there aren’t any debates in the financial media.

Friedman then moved away from Marxist theory to assert a second, more profound reason for why the media distorted Marcus’s speech, the deeply ingrained view that only government has power, and business is powerless. Therefore, when Marcus said that more decisive leadership is needed, the media assumed that she meant from government.

The real power of the news media, said Friedman, is how it shapes common sense in society. But you don’t have to be a Marxist to know business is not powerless, he said. Friedman referred to David Yudelman’s study of the relationship between state, capital, and white labour in the 1920s to assert that business and government feed off each other in a symbiotic alliance.

“Markets are not free-for-all,” said Friedman, “People trade in a regulated fashion.” Business needs government to enforce rules, and government needs businesses for tax, employment opportunities, etc.

Friedman then asked a fundamental question, “Is power in South Africa about race or about class?” His simple answer: “It is both.” Race is an issue and class is an issue, and they intersect “in interesting ways”.

An example of hidden racial assumptions, said Friedman, is that business is white, government black. Racial assumptions also, in Friedman’s view, explain why Foreign Direct Investment is always seen as desirable – except when it is Chinese FDI.

Friedman concluded that we need to look more carefully at financial and economics journalism in South Africa. He said we need to have a look at the bigger picture, how people who write about financial issues have shaped enhanced our sense of the market. We need to look at where journalists are situated, at the cultural and racial prejudice that shapes the dominant discourse. Friedman concluded with a challenge to academics to work on the subtle assumptions and subtle prejudices that inform public debate.